Washington's Little Ethiopia

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005; F01

Last November, brothers Yared and Henock Tesfaye surprised their mother with a gift -- her own restaurant. They gave it her nickname: "Etete. " It's at Ninth and U streets NW, in the Shaw section of Washington, an area with a growing ethnic identity. Some folks call it Little Ethiopia.

"This neighborhood is our place, a place we can be proud of," says Yared Tesfaye, who helps out in the dining room when not working his other two jobs, as real estate agent and parking attendant.

The brothers, who arrived from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 1994, chose modern decor for their mother's restaurant because "we want to bring a lot of people, not just Ethiopians, but tourists to this block," says Yared Tesfaye, 25. Their mother, Tiwaltenigus "Etete" Shenegelegn, has cooked for 15 years at Ethiopian restaurants in D.C.

The Washington region, with its 200,000 people of Ethiopian descent, has the largest Ethiopian population outside of the country itself, according to an unofficial estimate by the embassy. With the addition of Etete, which specializes in vegetarian meals, 10 Ethiopian restaurants now are clustered at U Street east of 13th and in the 1900 block of Ninth Street. Each has its distinct ambiance and fans.

The new enclave has twice as many Ethiopian restaurants as Adams Morgan, where Ethiopian entrepreneurs began opening food businesses in the late 1970s. The exotic and inexpensive cuisine attracts not only fellow countrymen but especially students and tourists. Meals are a communal, social activity, and there is no need for a knife and fork. Ethiopian is all about finger food.

Diners gather around a single, circular platter covered with a soft, 16-inch pancake or bread called injera . Spicy stews, seasoned vegetables and pureed legumes are artfully placed around the pancake. Additional injera are served alongside. That's when it's time to tear a section of the bread and use it to gather a mouthful from the assorted offerings. When the underlying pancake, soaked with sauce, is consumed, the meal is considered complete.

High rents in Adams Morgan have motivated restaurateurs to locate in a more reasonably priced but quickly redeveloping area. Major changes have occurred around Ninth and U streets in the past 18 months.

"We bought abandoned buildings, rebuilt them and cleaned this area up to make it what it is," says Belay Sahlemariam, co-owner of U Turn, an attractive corner bar that opened in October. One wall is covered with vintage newspapers from back home. Up a flight of steep stairs is a good-size restaurant with a stage for entertainment. U Turn is one block from the U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metro station.

Around the corner is Abiti, a brightly colored, 48-seat restaurant that opened about the same time as Etete. The furnishings are traditional basket-weave tables and Ethiopian fabrics. The surface of the small bar in the rear is of particular interest. "I cut up my wife's old clothes and laminated over the fabric," says co-owner Negash Shifraw.

He and his wife, Abonesh "Abiti" Boku, host an Ethiopian-style coffee service on Sunday afternoons. (The cultivation of coffee, it's widely thought, began in Ethiopia.) On weekend nights, Boku, the cook, sings traditional native songs. "To be different, we're trying to be a cultural restaurant," says Shifraw.

A few doors up, the casual Queen Makeda restaurant has its own following.

"Remember when your mother cooked for you at home? That's the taste you'll find here," says customer Mesafint Beyene, who works in the food and beverage department at the Washington Hilton. Beyene, who was dining at the bar on a recent afternoon, is partial to Makeda's doro wat -- the spicy chicken stew that is Ethiopia's national dish. "I've tried them all, every restaurant, in the six years I've been here," he says. "But here the food is never mass produced or too hot and spicy."

In addition to customary Ethiopian dishes, Axum, an unpretentious cafe across the street from Queen Makeda, is noted for its fried chicken cutlet served with a side of pasta. "It shows our Italian influence, and it's light," says owner Gebre Kahassai. (Italy twice invaded and occupied Ethiopia, in 1895 and 1935.) "Say you're driving a cab all day; injera can be pretty heavy," he says.

But the best-known Ethiopian restaurant in the neighborhood is the six-year-old Dukem. Owner Tefera Zewdie says that when he opened, the majority of his customers were from back home. "So much has changed in the last year and a half," says Zewdie, who has an adjoining carryout. On weekend nights in Dukem's outdoor area, there's a barbecue where Ethiopian-spiced New York strip steaks are grilled. "Now, I have far more white and African American customers," Zewdie says.

His sister, Senedu, opened Sodere restaurant last May with two of her other brothers, Mekonen and Mesefen. It's a few doors down from Etete. She says there is a challenge filling seats on weeknights with so many other restaurants in the area.

"Basically, with the food, all Ethiopian restaurants are the same," says Senedu Zewdie. "To be different, you have to have a coffee service and entertainment. That's what everybody is doing to attract more people." And all the enclave's restaurant owners agree that the best way to do so is by formally naming the neighborhood for their homeland.

The D.C. Council is considering a proposal by the Ethiopian community to designate and honor the area with a name posted on signs, according to Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham (D). More than 1,700 people have signed a petition circulated by a group headed by real estate agent Tamrat G. Medhin, chairman of the Ethiopian-American Constituency Foundation.

Some of the suggested names are Ethio City, Little Addis Ababa and Selassie Village. But the top pick is Little Ethiopia.

No decision has been made. But Graham says he is "deeply supportive of this effort, and we could decide in a matter of weeks."

"It would mean so much to us. To be recognized is a big plus, " says Senedu Zewdie. "We will show the signs to our children and our grandchildren and say, this is our home and Ethiopia is our identity."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company